Lawmakers debate agency’s future as new leader takes over

Source: By Kevin Bogardus and E.A. Crunden, E&E News reporters • Posted: Thursday, March 11, 2021

House Democrats yesterday delved into what’s possible for EPA under the Biden administration and newly-confirmed Administrator Michael Regan.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing on “restoring” EPA’s mission.

The agency, targeted by the prior administration for budget cuts and rollbacks of environmental protections, has seen hundreds of employees leave and morale decline for those who remained.

How to rebuild EPA’s capacity will be a driving force for the new administration and congressional Democrats who want to mount an aggressive campaign against climate change and for environmental justice.

“Why do you think that the morale has dropped so low?” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) asked about EPA’s employees at yesterday’s hearing.

Christine Todd Whitman, who led EPA from 2001 to 2003, credited the Trump administration for the workforce feeling frustrated at the agency.

“I think a lot of it has been due to the attitude of the previous administration toward the environment in general and to science specifically,” Whitman said.

She noted how the Trump EPA restricted science, removing climate change from websites or not allowing staff to go to conferences to discuss it.

“That made scientists feel as if they were being totally ignored and restricted to a point where they were getting the message that science really wasn’t important,” she said.

Carol Browner, EPA’s longest serving administrator who led the agency during the Clinton administration, said recruiting and retaining talent can be helped by letting EPA get back to work.

“Part of how you achieve that is by making sure the agency is allowed to do its job, that it has a reputation for recognizing the professional experiences that people bring to the work,” Browner said, noting that people who seek to work at EPA want to do science.

“The politicals ultimately make a decision with that science but allow the career professional staff to do their job and it will be a great place for people to work, as it has been historically,” she said.

Environmental justice concerns dominate

At yesterday’s hearing, lawmakers and witnesses repeatedly emphasized environmental justice and EPA’s role in centering and protecting vulnerable communities.

“The health and safety of people who live near polluting and generating facilities must be protected,” said Whitman.

Browner, meanwhile, listed the issue as among the core parameters guiding EPA’s agenda, alongside following science, the law and prioritizing enforcement.

“Communities of color, poor communities, suffer disproportionately the burdens of our modern industrial society,” Browner said, noting those same groups are also bearing the burden of worsening climate impacts.

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) was one of many lawmakers to highlight the effects of air pollution and other areas under EPA jurisdiction on fenceline communities, arguing “EPA has an essential mission” to target such issues.

Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, who served as EPA’s Region 4 administrator and later as chief of staff during the Obama administration, said the agency could utilize Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, for example, which prohibits discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal funds.

Republicans underscored the challenges facing fossil fuel workers, particularly coal miners in states like West Virginia.

“We need to make sure we don’t leave out the communities of central Appalachia,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), ranking member on the subcommittee, to agreement from John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business & Economic Research.

Republicans defend Trump EPA

While Democrats focused on “restoring” EPA, Republican speakers largely sought to defend the Trump administration’s record on environmental issues.

They touted issues like recycling — a priority under former EPA chiefs Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler — and the completion of regulations like the Lead and Copper Rule.

GOP lawmakers also frequently pointed to EPA actions taken under the Obama administration, arguing they proved burdensome and harmed workers.

“The real world impact of EPA’s regulatory decisions should be understood,” said Griffith in opening remarks.

One particular point of emphasis was EPA’s Superfund program, which prioritizes the most toxic sites in the country for cleanup.

Under Pruitt in particular, the Trump administration singled out Superfund as a key issue, ultimately garnering praise from some communities.

Trump’s EPA repeatedly emphasized deletions from the National Priorities List in particular, although experts have said that number is a misleading metric as it often reflects work under prior administrations (Greenwire, Jan. 13).

But Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Billy Long (R-Mo.) both pointed to the site deletions as an indicator of EPA’s success under Trump, with Long listing it as part of the “tremendous work” accomplished during the last four years.

Alabama Republican Rep. Gary Palmer also defended the Trump administration’s work on “secret science” efforts, which included an EPA rule to limit what public health studies could be used in developing regulations. Last month, a federal court scrapped that rule at the request of the Biden administration (Greenwire, Feb. 1).

Republicans used the hearing as an opportunity to bash the new administration’s plans to fight climate change. They said potential regulations could limit America’s own energy sources like coal and natural gas and instead benefit China.

“I think my concern is that the approach that’s being promoted right now by the majority and many Democrats is going to make us dangerously dependent upon China,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, noting the Asian superpower has vast interests in solar panels, wind turbines and rare earth minerals.

“That’s where we need to make sure that we’re not moving forward on policy that’s only going to make us more dependent upon China. We need to celebrate that America’s leading right now and bringing down carbon emissions,” McMorris Rodgers said.

PFAS, wider chemicals focus

Scrutiny of EPA’s work on chemicals took center stage at times during the hearing, heightened by the presence of Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, who previously served as principal deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

That office had a rough time under Trump, amid accusations of political interference and deemphasizing scientific findings and the input of career staff.

The value of peer review, as well as which studies are prioritized in rulemaking, has been a leading source of contention around chemical risk evaluations (E&E News PM, Feb. 16).

Cleland-Hamnett appeared to reference that tension in her opening remarks, arguing that “scientific peer review is a cornerstone of credibility for EPA science” and that “balanced peer review panels” are critical to the agency’s work.

She noted her own retirement from the office after sensing that “special interests were the primary source of information for the [Trump] administration” on chemical issues.

Witnesses were also queried specifically about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a large family of controversial nonstick chemicals.

EPA has begun the process of regulating two PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but the agency is under immense bipartisan pressure to crack down on contamination.

In response to a question from Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) on how EPA can tackle PFAS contamination, Cleland-Hamnett emphasized the role of the agency’s chemicals office.

“I think that the amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act that were signed into law in 2016, if properly implemented and resourced and moved along at the right pace, could very much contribute to the agency’s efforts to address PFAS chemicals,” she said.

Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) similarly raised issues around PFAS, noting that her state has set drinking water regulations far outpacing the federal government.

Browner responded that “EPA has the scientists, the capabilities to do the large scale studies” and indicated tone-setting could come from the agency.

New administrator

EPA is onto its next chapter as new leadership comes on board. Yesterday, the Senate confirmed Michael Regan as EPA administrator on a 66-34 vote, with 16 Republicans joining Democrats in support.

Regan, as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, sought to restore morale at the state agency, which he will now look to do at its federal counterpart.

Both former EPA administrators at yesterday’s hearing praised Regan. Whitman said she is already spoken to him about what to expect at the agency.

Whitman said EPA’s work has been undermined in recent years, leading to a loss of confidence by Americans in their government. Regan, however, could get the agency back on track, she said.

“I am encouraged, however, that President Biden’s nominee for EPA administrator, Michael Regan, has the experience, expertise and credibility to restore people’s faith in the EPA,” Whitman said.